NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA – A COURSE TOUR & APPRECIATION
Southampton, NY – Charles Blair Macdonald
“There are no more beautiful golfing vistas in all the world than those from the National Golf Club . . .” – C.B. Macdonald
For me, this is sacred ground.
As a devout member of the church of MacRaynor, and indeed, as one who owes his very interest in golf course architecture and history to the golf courses these men left behind, playing a round of golf at the National was my pilgrimage, my Mecca. Charles Blair Macdonald’s masterpiece did not disappoint.
I will not belabor the history of this place, as most are surely and intimately familiar with it, and far better writers than me have chronicled it (See Scotland’s Gift, by C.B. Macdonald and The Evangelist of Golf, by George Bahto for examples). Suffice it to say, for these purposes, that National Golf Links was the brainchild and baby of Charles Blair MacDonald, who endeavored to build the premier American golf course by utilizing architectural templates adopted from the great golf holes of the British Isles. Having found a suitable location on Long Island, Macdonald set about implementing and integrating these templates into the natural features of the property. What remains today is the result of his lifelong association with the Club and the Course.
My day at National came early in the season, and with the long grasses not yet in bloom, the architectural features of the golf course were on full display. Otherwise, with a temperature in the low 70s and a stiff breeze blowing, it was a picture perfect day.
Despite being over 100 years old, the National is still intensely studied and of great architectural interest today. With this in mind, it is my hope that these photos will provide a reference to those who have not seen the golf course, a refresher (or simply pleasant memories) to those who have, and an enjoyable way to pass the time for all.
I hope you enjoy the tour.
NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA
“This property was little known and had never been surveyed. Every one thought it more or less worthless. It abounded in bogs and swamps and was covered with an entanglement of bayberry, huckleberry, blackberry, and other bushes and was infested by insects.” – C.B. Macdonald
Few would quarrel with the statement that C.B. Macdonald, and his faithful engineering sidekick Seth Raynor, turned an unpassable wasteland into the greatest golf course yet built in America. Playing today to a very reasonable Championship yardage of 6,935 and a Regular yardage of 6,505, the course stands as an enduring testament to Macdonald’s belief that “as bad as too short a course may be, too long a course is infinitely worse.” Macdonald would be pleased that the club has resisted adding length for length’s sake and has instead focused on keeping the course playing the way Macdonald intended — firm, fast and fun.
The golf course is a strategic masterpiece that provides players of all levels with an enjoyable and exciting experience. More’s the pity that this seemingly obvious concept has become novel over the past 100 years. Every hole on the golf course provides options for the skilled player and the hack, and every hole provides challenges that expertly balance risk and reward.
National Golf Links sits on rolling land northwest of the town of Southhampton, bordered in part to the north and east by Peconic Bay and Bullhead Bay, respectively. It’s a heady neighborhood for a golfer, as the course is bordered to the South by Shinnecock Hills and, more recently, to the west by Sebonack Golf Club.
As with several other great classic golf courses, getting to National is an experience in itself. The long drive eastward on Long Island highways ends abruptly, and once the left onto Shrubland Road is made, the rest of the world just sort of fades to background noise. After passing Cold Spring Pond and the ornate gates to Sebonack Golf Club, the player gets his first glimpse of the National as the road bisects the course at the eighth and eleventh holes. The Road hole green is visible to the left …
…and Bottle to the right.
A bit farther up the road, Shinnecock Hills and its famous clubhouse come into view …
Past Shinnecock, after a left is made onto Sebonac Inlet Road, the National reemerges, with the Eden hole visible to the left…
… and if lucky, a beautiful sunrise over Bullhead Bay to the right.
And ahead, the famous windmill first comes into view.
At last, the player reaches the famous gates, and is already filled with anticipation resulting from the early glimpses of the course.
And once through the gates, with the gorgeous Peconic hole immediately to the left, the player knows beyond doubt that this day will be a special one.
When the Shinnecock Inn, which served as the National’s original clubhouse, burned to the ground in 1909, C.B. Macdonald called it “most fortunate, for to-day we have an unexcelled site.” And he was right.
I talk a lot about clubhouses in my tours, largely because I believe that the clubhouse is an extension of the golfing experience. When done right, the clubhouse amplifies the ambiance and the setting of the golf course.
Some of the best golf courses in this country are identifiable by their clubhouses alone, and often these clubhouses become iconic in their own right. No two are the same — the imposing fortress of Sleepy Hollow is as different from the yellow-sided farmhouse of Myopia as the stone mansion at Winged Foot is from the manorhome at Merion. But all share one key trait — they suit their environs perfectly. The National is no exception.
Inside, the clubhouse features a large statute and portrait of C.B. Macdonald.
No tour of National Golf Links would be complete without at least a brief mention of its famous windmill.
As chronicled in George Bahto’s excellent book, the Evangelist of Golf, the story goes that a member, Dan Pomeroy, suggested to C.B. Macdonald that the club’s water tower was unsightly, and suggested that a windmill be built around it. Macdonald obliged, and then stuck the member with the bill. At least he got his name on the plaque.
The National’s windmill is a central feature of the golf course visible from more than half the holes, and provides a unique and memorable emblem for the club.
The range at the National is one of the more picturesque in existence, as it sits between the Home hole and Peconic Bay. The range is on the former site of the three hole “practice course” that Macdonald built and which contained replicas of the three par-3 greens present at the National – Redan, Short and Eden. The practice course is visible on the course map below.
The National also provides a practice green, which sits between the clubhouse and the first tee, and a beautiful short-game area tucked into the far northwestern corner of the property, which affords gorgeous views of the Bay.
“When playing golf you want to be alone with nature.” – C.B. Macdonald
It bears mentioning here that during my visit, I was quite pleased to find the National teeming with wildlife. As a city boy, I wholeheartedly agree with Macdonald’s sentiment. In addition to the ospreys inhabiting the nest near the beach (kindly provided by the Club), National is home to deer and many other species of birds (including turkeys, but alas, our scorned national bird refused to be photographed).
THE GOLF COURSE
As mentioned above, National Golf Links plays to a “Championship” yardage of 6,935 and a “Regular” yardage of 6,505 and a modern-day par 72.
As was Macdonald’s practice, each of the holes at National is named (a practice I very much endorse) and those names are listed on the exceptionally simple scorecard the club provides.
The course is laid out in a true links style out-and-back routing running generally from north to south on the front, and south to north on the back. As a result, the player confronts opposing winds on each nine. Green-to-tee walks are pleasantly short (strikingly so by modern standards) and there is little on the course to distract or detract from the golf experience.
Hole 1 – 330/315yds – Par 4 – “Valley”
This beautiful little opener gives the player an idea of what he will confront constantly during his round — choices. Playing left to right, the choice of tee shot could be anything from a mid-iron to driver.
Overly timid or indifferent tee shots will catch this string of bunkers laid out short of the fairway. Note that the carry to the left is significantly farther than it appears from the tee.
While the aggressive line over these bunkers makes the green reachable for longer players, these bunkers will extract a severe price from an overly ambitious tee-shot hit by an overly confident player.
The green is elevated, obscuring parts of the putting surface and surrounding area from view on the approach. A severe false front will repel shots that come up short.
Balls missed left will find the bunkers in the foreground, while those right will encounter the series of random humps and mounds visible in the background.
The first green is rife with undulations and ridges, placing added importance on an accurate approach.
Missing left is no picnic …
… nor is missing right. This view from right-rear shows the large ridge bisecting the green. Being on the wrong side of this ridge is a recipe for a three-putt.
As seen from above: the bold internal contours of the first green at National.
Simply put, this is one of the best openers in golf.
Hole 2 – 330/290yds – Par 4 – “Sahara”
Another gem of a short two-shot hole, the second again confronts the golfer with a decision from the tee — be aggressive, hug the left side, carry the Sahara bunker and try to drive the green, or be safe, play out right and attempt what should be an easy par.
Though most of it is hidden from view from the tee, the Sahara bunker presents a formidable hazard.
An aggressive ball that carries the Sahara bunker is rewarded with a fairway that slopes directly into the putting surface.
While bailing out to the right to shorten the carry over the Sahara bunker might be considered the safe play, it is not entirely free of danger, as a ball too firmly struck on this line will carry down into a deep hollow, resulting in a difficult and blind approach.
The green is open across its full length, permitting balls to be run on to the surface, whether struck from the tee or the fairway. The Narrows, Redan and Alps are visible behind.
As this view back up the fairway shows, Macdonald provided an ample reward for players that successfully negotiated the risk of an ambitious line. Note that long is perhaps the worst miss of all, as the green drops immediately straight down some dozen feet, and can shed balls for some distance.
Sahara as seen from Alps — note the fall off from the rear of the green and the deep hollow to the left of the frame. Along with the Alps, one of my favorite holes on the course, and as can also be said for the Alps, it will forever remain a mystery as to why such holes are no longer made.
Hole 3 – 426/407yds – Par 4 – “Alps”
One of my favorite holes in all of golf, Macdonald’s rendition of the Alps is a magnificent and challenging two-shot hole. In opposition to the first two holes, which are shorter with fairways tending right to left, the Alps is a long, uphill hole with a fairway moving from left to right.
The first choice the player must make is to pick an appropriate line off the tee. The farther right the line, the longer the carry over the bunker, but the shorter and better the angle for the approach.
Once safely in the fairway, the player confronts another choice — challenge the Alps hill and aim for the green (marked by a bell tower), or bail out up the right side and play for the green in three. Each route to the hole presents its own set of challenges. For what its worth, I believe that the second shot is the finest blind shot in golf.
One of the primary difficulties of the second shot here is that, although Macdonald built the second green very large, he also ringed it with trouble, including the crossbunker fronting the green. A player can’t “get away with one” on this hole — it is a true test that must be met with a true golf shot.
Few thrills in golf can match hitting the third green at the National in two well-struck shots, and walking away with par or better here reminds the player of why he took up golf in the first place. Certainly, Alps is one of the finest par-4s in the world.
Hole 4 – 195/181yds – Par 3 – “Redan”
If the third hole at National is to be counted among the best two-shot holes in the game, certainly the fourth is among the best of the one-shot holes. The iconic American Redan, this hole is as beautiful as Redans get, and plays as all Redans should, which is to say, difficult.
The front right framing bunker is out of play for all but the most indifferent of shots, but the lefthand bunker presents a true hazard and makes direct approach to this green foolhardy.
The severity of the slopes built into this Redan are unique among Macdonald’s versions of this hole. Piping Rock’s third, with its elevated green and deep front bunker, is likely the closest comparison.
The kickslope here is substantial enough to propel the ball to all potential hole locations on this large green, which, along with its right to left / front to back slope, contains its own set of undulations.
Shots missing long will find the back bunker, which is an extremely difficult recovery (as your author learned from experience).
Putting from above the hole is a supreme challenge.
The finest Redan in American golf, and one of the best par-3 holes in the world.
Hole 5 – 478/451yds – Par 4 – “Hog’s Back”
The third of three difficult holes, the fifth at National asks for a tee shot over a formidable cross bunker cut into the hill to a fairway humped down its spine so as to shed balls to either side.
The fairway’s natural ripples provide added visual and playing interest.
Longer drives will contend with this unique trench bunker that bisects the fairway. The green sits in the middle of this frame.
The wide, downsloping fairway leads straight into the green and will carry running approach shots a long way, allowing even shorter hitters to reach this long par-4 in two shots.
The approach at the fifth practically begs for a running shot.
These two bunkers left of the green strongly suggest that the player use the sloping right-to-left fairway to access the green.
Hole 6 – 141/123yds – Par 3 – “Short”
A Macdonald original as fun as it is maddening, the sixth is the shortest hole at National and has one of the largest and wildest greens on the property. From the tee, the greens for Sebonack and Eden are visible to the right.
To say this green is heavily contoured is to understate the matter substantially. The large mound in the center of the green (on which this day’s pin sits) sheds balls in all directions, as does the larger green itself.
Any ball that fails to find (or hold) the putting surface is likely to end up in a bunker — some more penal than others, like this little beauty here.
The degree of elevation change in this green, as seen from the right side, is quite striking and adds a wonderful element of challenge to an otherwise short hole.
Hole 7 – 478/467yds – Par 5 – “St. Andrews”
The first three shot hole at National is Macdonald’s tribute to the Road Hole at St. Andrews. A blind tee shot over a waste area is the first order of business.
The bunkering down the right will catch any tee shots that stray that way. These bunkers are largely invisible from the tee.
The National is replete with interesting and unique terrain features, like this slash of a bunker and fronting mound.
These two small bunkers in the area short of the green are so flat that they are invisible from a distance, adding to the uncertainty and challenge of the approach. The road bunker looms to the left of the elevated green.
The large green is elevated by a mere two feet or so, but this small feature adds exponentially to the difficulty of judging and hitting an approach shot. A brilliant feature.
The most formidable Road Hole bunker that Macdonald ever created, this monster has allegedly been softened over time.
Quite simply …
… avoid at all costs.
The green, while largely flat, slopes away on all sides and is harder to hold than it appears.
A large, deep bunker runs down the entire right side of the green, ready to catch those who decline to challenge the Road bunker.
An exceptional three-shot hole in every respect.
Hole 8 – 400/385yds – Par 4 – “Bottle”
Another template that has been largely lost with time, Macdonald’s “Bottle” hole presents the option to take the straightforward tee shot down the right side, or attack the left side of the fairway and challenge the bunkers in return for a better view and angle into the green.
The tee shot on the eighth crosses Shrubland Road for the first time.
The Bottle bunkers that bisect the eighth hole are unique in design and formidable in their defense of the hole …
… and they play bigger than they look.
Between the Bottle bunkers and the green, Macdonald installed a Principal’s Nose bunker complex.
The green is substantially elevated with steep drops on three sides. Missing right is particularly penal.
The view from behind the classic Bottle hole.
Hole 9 – 540/534yds – Par 5 – “Long”
The aptly named ninth is the longest hole at the National, which is perhaps surprising to some, since it measures only 540 yards. But what this hole lacks in length, it more than makes up for in other ways.
The ideal line off the tee is to remain as far right as possible while still carrying the short set of bunkers. Shots hit down the left will run through the fairway and feed into the “Hell’s Half Acre” complex.
Once past Hell’s Half Acre, a large green defended by steep bunkers short left and long right awaits.
This day’s pin forces the player to challenge the right bunkers and the side slope of the green, which will shed balls up to 25 yards away.
The view back toward the ninth tee.
Hole 10 – 450/420yds – Par 4 – “Shinnecock”
Aptly named, the tenth at National borders Shinnecock Hills and turns the player back northward toward the clubhouse. It is a hole that ranks as a favorite among many.
Two low profile cross bunkers encroaching into the fairway from either side add challenge to the tee shot.
What looks like a rather straightforward approach shot from the safer, right side of the fairway is soon revealed to be …
… more challenging than it first appears.
Again, Macdonald maps the terrain to allow approaches to the green along safer, if at times less rewarding routes. Here, if the proper angles are played, no hazards need be crossed. A wonderful green complex, to be sure.
The magnificently routed tenth at National.
Hole 11 – 432/418yds – Par 4 – “Plateau”
A blind tee shot awaits the golfer at the eleventh hole, and care should be taken to avoid the left side …
… as gathering bunkers collect shots hit in this area.
The approach on eleven crosses back over the road, obscured here by a berm.
A second Principal’s Nose bunker complex sits short of the green.
Macdonald’s exceptional Double Plateau green speaks for itself.
As seen here from the right side of the green, the small bunkers arrayed around this green have a much larger footprint than their actual size. It’s very possible to putt into some of them.
This large bunker behind guards the lower portion of the green and will catch balls that skirt through the middle of the plateaus.
Hole 12 – 459/427yds – Par 4 – “Sebonac”
This two-shotter calls for a tee shot to an ample but angled fairway…
… guarded by deep bunkers down the lefthand side.
Approach shots confront a small, slightly elevated green fraught with hazards on all sides.
The lack of any background makes gauging distance difficult.
The green runs hard away to the right and rear.
The twelfth as seen from behind. A truly original and enjoyable hole.
Hole 13 – 174/159yds – Par 3 – “Eden”
The third of the National’s three one-shot holes, Macdonald’s tribute to Eden is fronted by the famous pond, which prevents players from having a go at the green with a putter. The result is a gorgeous hole.
The Hill, Strath and Shelley bunkers are all present and accounted for, as is the Eden bunker wrapping behind the green …
… though the Strath bunker is particularly menacing.
Tucked into a corner of the property, the Eden green is one of the most peaceful, and beautiful, spots in golf.
Hole 14 – 393/341yds – Par 4 – “Cape”
Perhaps Macdonald’s most famous original design, the fourteenth plays out over a pond to a fairway running right to left along its far banks.
The undulating fairway is guarded by a deep pot bunker left and the pond along its right flank.
This green offers no easy access from any angle. Players attacking the left side must contend with a series of small bunkers short left and deeper bunkers left and rear of the green …
… while those approaching from the right must tackle the hazard.
The gorgeous Cape …
… a hole as challenging as it is scenic.
Hole 15 – 417/368yds – Par 4 – “Narrows”
Perhaps the most beautiful hole at National, the fifteenth plays out to a fairway flanked with bunkers on all sides.
Missing the fairway into the left bunkers cut into the hillside all but guarantees a missed green.
The fifteenth fairway winds its way between Macdonald’s strategic bunkering, including this bunker in the middle of the fairway some 60 yards short of the green.
The green is offset slightly to the left and is surrounded by bunkering. This is the most heavily bunkered hole at National.
The green slopes substantially from back to front, aiding with approaches but making putting difficult.
This view from the right greenside bunker reveals the steepness of the slope in this challenging green.
Long is a brutal miss here, as the player must not only confront the deep bunker, but the slope of the green running away.
Once again, Macdonald gave the player no close background for reference, and the horizon green only adds to the challenge.
Exceptional. Note the Redan in the right of the frame.
Hole 16 – 415/394yds – Par 4 – “Punchbowl”
An Alps and an Alps/Punchbowl — this surely must be heaven. The sixteenth hole begins with a tee shot up a rising fairway, ideally reaching the level portion of the ground beyond the first crest.
Straying too far to the right, however, will lead a ball to this deep hollow, similar to the feature on the second hole. While all shots to the sixteenth green are blind and uphill, an approach from the bottom of the hollow is doubly so.
The sixteenth also shares a Sahara-like bunker feature with the second hole, as seen here short of the green.
The green itself is tiny, although the surrounding punchbowl features contain shots that miss.
Having cleared the fronting bunkers, the player must still contend with the ridge running from the back of the hazard to the front of the green, which will deflect balls on to, or away from, the putting surface.
These two bunkers set high into the face of the left hill provide a formidable hazard for shots that are far enough offline to deserve such a fate.
An incomparable hole.
Hole 17 – 375/342yds – Par 4 – “Peconic”
“The view over Peconic Bay is one of the loveliest in the world.” – Bernard Darwin
Indeed. The penultimate hole at the National is gorgeous in every respect, but it is also a world class short par-4 hole. From the tee, the player is forced to lay up short of the two fairway bunkers or drive over them to the left. This hole is reachable for longer hitters.
On approach from the right, the player confronts this odd sandy berm that runs the length of the green and hides parts of the putting surface.
The berm also hides the small pot bunkers, which stand ready to catch any shot left short.
This defense is a unique feature, and one that I do not recall seeing elsewhere.
One of the many standout holes at the National.
Hole 18 – 502/483yds – Par 5 – “Home”
“Finally there is, I think, the finest eighteenth hole in all the world.” – Bernard Darwin
Playing far longer than its listed yardage, the three shot eighteenth hole plays back up to the clubhouse with full views of Peconic Bay.
From the shadow of the clubhouse, one appreciates what Bernard Darwin meant when he wrote of the beauty of golf along Peconic Bay.
In approaching the green, the left side affords the better view, the right the better angle of play.
The green provides ample room for a ground approach but falls away rather steeply on all sides.
Long does not work well here.
The view of the Home green, with Peconic Bay behind.
The view looking back down the 18th hole.
As you can no doubt tell, I adored this golf course. It is no less than the finest golf course that I have ever played, as well as one of the most enjoyable. For a MacRaynor fan, a round at National Golf Links is like a tour through a living museum, and my round there will surely remain a highlight of my golfing life.
I must mention here that I owe a debt of gratitude to GCA’er Chuck Glowacki, who caddied for us on our trip around these legendary links. Chuck is a wonderful looper, extraordinarily knowledgeable about the National, and outstanding company to boot. His presence added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the round. And I likewise owe thanks to GCAer Nigel Islam, who was with me at National during this round and whose fine play and enjoyable camaraderie made the round that much more special.
National Golf Links is a truly special place, and a golf course that should be treasured and preserved for all time. A day at National is a throwback in time that will refresh your spirits, restore your hopes, and remind us all why we took up this game in the first place.
Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf